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Fox News Journalists Describe Kidnapping

August 27, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Two Fox News journalists freed by militants Sunday described a harrowing two weeks of captivity during which they were blindfolded, tied in painful positions and forced at gunpoint to say on a video that they converted to Islam.

After their release, the men met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and left Gaza, but first appealed at a brief news conference for foreign journalists not to be deterred from covering the plight of the Palestinians in the volatile coastal strip.

``I hope that this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza to cover the story because the Palestinian people are very beautiful and kindhearted,″ said Steve Centanni, a 60-year-old American reporter who was released along with cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, of New Zealand. ``The world needs to know more about them.″

In a phone call with Fox News, Centanni said they were abducted Aug. 14 by four masked gunmen on a side street in Gaza City. He said the assailants covered his head with a black hood, and crammed him and Wiig into a small car.

Their possessions were taken, and their wrists were bound behind their backs. ``I still have some sore wrists,″ he said. ``It was digging into my wrists really badly.″

In captivity, Centanni said, he was laid face down in a dark garage and tied up in painful positions.

``If we tried to get up and sit up, which I did do a few times, they would eventually just force us back down with something stuck to my head,″ he said. ``I don’t know if it was a stick, a flashlight or a gun or what. We couldn’t see. We were forced to lay face down again in the dirt with blindfolds on.″

Before their release, a video was released showing Wiig and Centanni dressed in beige Arab-style robes. Wiig delivered an anti-Western speech, his face expressionless and his tone halting. The kidnappers claimed both men had converted to Islam.

``We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint,″ Centanni told Fox. ``Don’t get me wrong here. I have the highest respect for Islam, and I learned a lot of good things about it, but it was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns, and we didn’t know what the hell was going on.″

Wiig, who has covered some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts, including Afghanistan and Iraq, said at the news conference that he also was worried the kidnapping might scare reporters away from Gaza.

``My biggest concern really is that as a result of what happened to us, foreign journalists will be discouraged from coming to tell the story and that would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine,″ Wiig said. ``You guys need us on the streets, and you need people to be aware of the story.″

The release of Centanni and Wiig ended Gaza’s longest crisis involving foreign hostages, but left unclear who was behind the kidnapping and what led them to free their captives. Palestinian militants have seized more than two dozen foreigners the past two years, usually to settle personal scores, and generally released their captives unharmed within hours.

The journalists were seized by a previously unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades. The group’s call for the release of Muslim prisoners held by the U.S. had raised concerns that foreign extremists, perhaps al-Qaida, had infiltrated Gaza.

But Palestinian security officials said the name was a front for local militants. They said the kidnappers _ whom they would not identify _ were tracked down through third parties, but did not say whether a deal was struck with the militants for the journalists’ release.

Interior Minister Said Siyam said he did not expect other foreign journalists in Gaza to face the same ordeal. ``In principle, there is a promise that this will not be repeated,″ he said, declining to elaborate.

The two journalists headed to Israel and were spending the night at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

Roger Ailes, Fox News’ chairman and chief executive, thanked ``governments and individuals throughout the world″ who helped free the men, and the journalism community for offering support.

``The entire international community is beginning to realize that journalists should never be hostages or pawns in world events. Their job is to tell the story of the world as it unfolds,″ Ailes said.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush was ``pleased the journalists were released and will soon be reunited with their entire families and loved ones.″

In New Zealand, Wiig’s father, Roger Wiig, said his son apologized for worrying everyone. ``His first comment was that he was sorry he had put us through that.″

Centanni’s brother, Ken Centanni of San Jose, Calif., expressed joy about the release, describing his phone conversation with his brother as ``the best phone call I’ve ever had.″

He said his brother sounded tired and a bit shaky but also sounded excited to be released. ``He was emotional and happy.″


Associated Press writer Justin M. Norton in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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